Managua (AFP) – Thousands of Nicaraguans marched peacefully through the capital Managua on Saturday in a mass demonstration to demand justice following the violent suppression of a wave of protests that left 43 people dead.
During the rally, which was called by the Catholic church, Managua’s bishop issued a deadline of one month to see if there was a serious intention to achieve change through a national dialogue aimed at resolving issues that triggered the country’s worst unrest in 11 years.
The rally took place just hours after university students at the forefront of anti-government unrest issued conditions for talks with the government of embattled President Daniel Ortega.
There was a sea of blue and white flags as the crowds massed outside the city’s cathedral, among them young people, the elderly and farmers protesting against plans to construct a canal linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.
“We have come on a pilgrimage as one people, brothers in the faith of the Lord Jesus, brothers in suffering for so many lives lost.. desiring justice, peace and reconciliation,” Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes told the crowds.
Brenes, the city’s archbishop, said he would act as a witness and mediator in the dialogue called for by Ortega, adding he would impose a deadline of one month to see “if a real commitment exists” to carry out the agreements reached.
“If we see that they are not taking these steps, we will call a halt and we will tell the people of God that we cannot carry on,” he said to widespread applause and chants of “Make them go!” in reference to Ortega and his wife, vice-president Rosario Murillo.
“We are no longer afraid, we want a free Nicaragua,” a demonstrator called Rosa Herrera, 65, told AFP.
“Nicaragua wants peace so that there is no more bloodshed,” said Maria Flores, a 40-year-old lawyer, while insisting: “There has to be justice for the dead and the disappeared.”
The demonstration took place in a calm atmosphere with prayers for peace — but also demands for justice for the victims of the repression — in what was the second mass march since the protests, following a demonstration on Monday by the country’s business community.
– ‘Independent and credible’ –
Although Ortega has agreed to hold talks, the framework has yet to be defined, with the students on Saturday laying down their conditions for the dialogue to take place.
Their demands included the dismissal of police involved in the repression, the establishment of an independent UN-backed body to investigate the violence, that the talks be held in public and that the relatives of those killed be involved.
Any commission investigating the violence must be “independent and credible” and have international backing to carry out its work, which would involve “investigating, condemning and sanctioning all those responsible for both approving and committing” the violence, they said.
The call came a day after Human Rights Watch called for pressure to be put on Ortega’s government to allow a visit by Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, the main rights body in the Americas, to investigate the allegations of abuse.
The students also demanded that a “Truth Commission” created by the government be disbanded, on grounds that “we don’t accept that the murderers investigate themselves.”
The country’s powerful private business lobby, which distanced itself from Ortega over the violence, has also signaled it is ready to join the talks.
– Ortega’s grip shaken –
The protests that erupted on April 18 were the worst faced by Ortega in his last 11 years in power, badly shaking his tight grip on power over the country, one of the poorest in Latin America.
The spark was reforms to the deficit-stricken social security system, but the unrest quickly swelled on the back of widespread resentment of Ortega’s perceived authoritarianism.
The president, a former Sandinista rebel who has ruled Nicaragua for 22 of the past 39 years, made a series of concessions after sharp domestic and international criticism over the use of security forces to put down the protests, and curbs on independent media to report them.
The concessions included abandoning the social security reforms, freeing dozens of arrested protesters, lifting broadcast bans on private TV channels, and offering dialogue.
Many Nicaraguans, though — especially emboldened university students — want Ortega to step down.